The Middle stars Neil Flynn, Eden Sher, Atticus Shaffer, Charlie McDermott and Patricia Heaton

The sitcom that captivates world audiences
Raymond Lo (The Philippine Star) - December 17, 2017 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines — It sure feels like it wasn’t too long ago when The Middle launched on the ABC network in the US. Or was it? Actually, the show has been on the air for nearly a decade now and has logged enough episodes to assure its perpetual life on syndication. This all-American sitcom is one of those rare shows that have captivated its audience and developed a loyal fan base not only in America but also in many parts of the world.

The Middle is about the Hecks, a middle-class family in Indiana and their experiences as a family in a fast-evolving rural American life. The show, which has garnered acclaim, spotlights the funny and comedic sides of raising children, growing up and the supposedly boring daily home life of a typical middle-class household in the Obama era. It premiered in 2009 and throughout nine seasons has consistently rated high and kept its stellar cast led by television superstar Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond fame and actor Neil Flynn. They play couple Frankie and Mike Heck who must raise three children Axl, Sue and Brick. Talented actors Charlie McDermott, Eden Sher and Atticus Shaffer play the Heck kids, who quite remarkably, all grew up on TV right before our very eyes along with their characters!

On Dec. 20, 10:30 p.m., the show will air its 200th episode, a huge milestone, on 2nd Avenue, the only general entertainment channel on free TV and pay TV that offers diverse content, featuring delightfully driven characters for the discerning market. It’s seen on UHF free TV Channel 29, Cablelink Channel 35, Cignal Channel 28 and Dream Channel Satellite Channel 32. You can also check out 2nd Avenue via its website http://2ndavenue.ph/; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/2ndAvenue; on Twitter via @2nd_Avenue; and on Instagram via @2ndavenuetv.

The cast and show creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline celebrated this rare television milestone in October and The STAR was there, the only Asian newspaper invited to the occasion and chat with the Hecks, err, the stars who play the lovable characters that have entertained us for many years now.

“I am incredibly excited!” Atticus exclaimed when we chatted on the red carpet. “This is a feat that is not easily achieved. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of time and to be able to break 200, specially in our last year, it’s such a wonderful way to end the series.”

Atticus plays Brick, the youngest of the Heck children. He started on the show when he was 11 and lived through his teens playing the character he has come to love. “It’s an industry that you really don’t know what you are going to get. Nothing is ever certain. When we had just finished Season 1, I remember in an interview and I had said, ‘I can see us going to Season 7, Season 8, just because I believe in the show that much.’ I could see us going that long but I never dreamed in a million years to have 200 episodes and over that by the end of the season.”

Looking back while watching old episodes, Atticus would marvel at how small he was during the early years of the series. “Wow, I was like 12 at that time and look at how small I am compared to my not a small form but a small form now!” he would recall.

“The truth is this has been my school, really, for the past nine going on 10 years. It’s film school! I am excited to see where I go next. I do want to move behind the camera and I‘ve learned a lot from this series and I am excited to see where that takes me,” he added.

This writer had one common question to all the Heck kids and it’s a fairly standard end-of-series party question. What souvenir are they going to take from the set?

“I haven’t started but I am starting to mark things,” Atticus excitedly shared. “I am making up a list, I am going to set deck at the end of the year and be like, ‘Hey, here’s what I want,’ and it includes the baby pictures, the afghan blanket on the couch and the stone bisk around the Heck porch.”

For Eden Sher, who plays the middle child Sue, crossing the 200th episode is something that she never dreamt about, considering how hard she fought for the part, including the multiple callbacks and re-auditions she did just to land the role.

“I auditioned, like, seven times. I was pretty sure that they didn’t like me,” she said, recalling her experience.

This writer with Patricia, who supports a home for streetchildren in Davao

“By the fourth audition, I was, like, ‘Why do I keep going back? They don’t like me!’ I auditioned and I went for a callback and there were more girls there than before and I was, like, ‘This is not a callback!’ and I went for another one and there were still more girls than before! I was like 17 at the time and they were all, like, 12, and I was, like, ‘I am not right for this!’”

She didn’t give up, of course, and kept reading for the part. Though she just kept getting that typical “thank-you-for-coming” rejections, she never gave up until she finally got the offer to do the screen test and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, 200 episodes later, Eden is beloved by fans as the ever-cheerful Sue Heck.

“I feel great! I am biased because I am me but there could not have been anyone else who could have done this,” she said giddily, proud of how she has played Sue all these years. “I feel so attached to this and I am so grateful that they, reluctantly were, like, ‘Okay, let’s give her a shot and no one else’ and I was, like, ‘Okay, I can do it. I promise.’”

And what is she taking from the show? Plenty of notebooks, figurines and stuff from the Heck living room! Although she cautioned that “I shouldn’t say (so) because I don’t want the prop department to hear this and they will, like, start hiding things from me.”

Charlie McDermott, who plays the oldest of the Heck brood Axl, is eyeing a jacket he has worn on a number of episodes. “I am going to steal a jacket!” he declared almost similar to how Axl would have said it on the show. The jacket being referred to is a vintage windbreaker that he finds cool and he feels like it’s already his.

“It’s been a fun run. I have never done anything for this long and it has been a wild ride,” he responded when asked how he would sum up his experience on the series. “I have definitely grown as an actor. It’s like a boot camp basically. To shoot that much, that fast is crazy. I sharpened my abilities, I guess.”

Charlie attributes the show’s success to the writers who have produced fresh storylines for years and for providing his character with just enough craziness to power him through nine seasons of the show without becoming repetitive or boring. He looks back fondly at a Season 3 episode when Sue and Axl had to do a project together and Axl botches it. “Basically, at the last minute, he throws it all together and makes it work. So, he fails then he succeeds and that was very fun.”

Neil Flynn, who plays Mike, the patriarch of the Heck household, has a different take on making it through 200 episodes and nine seasons.

“I am definitely older, I’ve noticed that,” he joked during our brief chat. “This is not something that everyone gets to celebrate so it’s weird that it’s me being part of the celebration! But what a great thing! I know that I got lucky.”

Finding success on American television is a difficult undertaking and it is not lost on Neil, who for years has been a staple of various sitcoms — some popular, some not — but not one has achieved the kind of success as the The Middle had.

“Television is always hard to succeed in except now there’s like 500 shows on the air, which is insane! When I was kid, I doubt if there was 100. In a business where so many people want to participate, if you get to participate, you have to feel lucky and so I do. I am so grateful every day that I get to do it,” he said.

Asked what he thinks is the secret behind the show’s success not only in the US but in other countries as well, Neil replied that it was the identification ordinary families have with the Hecks and how their family dynamic relates to the lives of the viewers.

“Family is family for the most part and if you take out the English language and subtitle it with, say, Filipino language, the people will still say, ‘Sure, that’s what mothers are like. That’s what fathers are like.’ And it’s all totally recognizable. They don’t exactly look like you but the behavior is not that different, family to family and country to country.”

Neil also considers himself lucky to have worked with Patricia Heaton, who is considered to be one of the funniest women on American television and one of the most successful to boot, but just don’t ask him what his favorite episode is out the 200 he has to choose from.

“That’s too hard to do. I should come up with an answer just so I could have an answer so I am going to say episode 107 was no doubt my favorite but I don’t know. It’s like taking that 200-mile train ride and being asked what your favorite mile was — it’s the whole trip.”

And, for Neil, working with Patricia and the rest of the cast was “fantastic.” “Not often that you work with the same people for nine years, at least in this business… it’s been a great thing. A very nice experience to spend so much time with these people over the years.”

Crossing the 200-episode mark is an achievement that’s not totally new for Patricia. The actress has been there before with the immensely popular series Everybody Loves Raymond, which also won for her an Emmy Award.

“I guess, if that’s what I am, then it feels really great,” she humbly responded after I congratulated her on her success and her standing as one of television’s royalties. “My day-to-day life is pretty simple. I ride my bike every day to work. We do our job. I come home and I hope that one of my boys would text me — they never do. They’re all out of the house now, we’re empty nesters. I see my girlfriends, I go to the grocery store — so I, kind of, just have a regular life,” she said, adding that the party was the most glamorous she has done in a while. “I have to do another show that goes 200 episodes in order to go to another party.” She did look stunning that evening.

“I love everyone on the show! It’s hard to believe that since the 100th episode party, it feels like only yesterday. And it’s hard to believe we’ve done another hundred episodes,” she told this writer during our chat which yielded more information than I have anticipated.

When Patricia learned that I was from the Philippines, she told me that she supports a home for street kids in Davao.

“There’s a wonderful fellow named Dean Tinney who has a real heart for kids. The one he started in Mexico is called Sparrow’s Gate and I think it’s called Sparrow’s Gate there in Davao.”

Patricia provides funding that helps build shelters for kids and programs that would get kids off the streets and get them education. She has not been to Davao yet, but she would love to visit one day.

Meantime, fans in the Philippines can visit Patricia and the rest of the cast of The Middle throughout the end of the final season and its reruns for years and years to come.

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